Mark Nadler


San Francisco Chronicle

Rushing through the Russians on a giddy musical express

Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic


Tuesday, March 2, 2004


Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians): Cabaret. Created and performed by Mark Nadler.(Through March 14. American Conservatory Theater at Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. 95 minutes. Tickets $14-$40. Call (415) 749-2228 or visit

It was the song, many say, that made Danny Kaye a star -- Ira Gershwin's tongue-wrenching compilation of Russian composers, with all those forbidding Slavic consonants, sung to an ever-more-rapid tune by Kurt Weill and delivered with astonishing dexterity by Kaye in "Lady in the Dark" in 1941. Mark Nadler goes Kaye one better, opening his solo show "Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians)" by singing and playing that same song at just about Kaye's maximum velocity, his lips popping consonants almost as fast as his fingers fly over the keys.

Then he proceeds to up the ante on Gershwin and Weill as well. Nadler takes their little novelty tune, his title song, and spins it into a 90-minute tour de force musical pastiche and comedy lecture that covers every one of the 48 composers cited in the lyrics and a number of American musical theater all- stars besides. It's fast. It's flip. It's whimsically erudite. ....... Word must have gotten out that this show was something special, considering the sizable audience at the Geary on Sunday. Greeting what was "clearly a very sophisticated group" -- either for choosing a musical evening over the Academy Awards or having learned how to tape them -- he explained the show's central conceit. The key to memorizing all those Russian composers' names is to know who each is and what his music sounds like.

Working on a monumental, sonorous, 10-foot-long Fazioli concert grand -- playing with impressive dexterity, comically grandiose flourishes and even a keyboard-soft shoe duet -- Nadler runs through at least a scrap of the music of every one of the 48 composers from Feodor Akimenko and Nikolay Artciboushcheff to Sergey Vasilenko and Vassily Zolotareff. That includes quite a few more familiar names -- Borodin, Prokofiev, Glinka, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky and the like -- most accompanied by cleverly enlightening anecdotes as well.

The quips and musical snatches come quick, Nadler tossing aside one score after another with a decisive "Next!" The segues are humorously varied. Some are logical -- from a teacher to a student, say, as in his brisk demonstration of how to turn Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumble-Bee" into Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." Some are geographical. Some are more free association.

Commenting on Tchaikovsky's notoriously lonely life, Nadler swings into a beautifully sweet and funny rendition of Frank Loesser's "The Ugly Duckling" (another Danny Kaye number), nicely sung, inventively mimed and brightly ornamented with passages from "Swan Lake." No, Loesser wasn't a Russian. But neither, really, was Vladimir Dukelsky, despite his inclusion in the title song. Better known as Vernon Duke, he wrote the music for Gershwin's "I Can't Get Started," which Nadler tears off with impressively comic rapidity.

Nadler adeptly inserts a dozen such songs into the show, just enough to keep his basic concept -- as funny as it is -- from getting tired....... Nadler is a commanding, energetic and inventive stylist. His heartfelt, combative take on Weill and Ogden Nash's "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" and his beguilingly wry rendition of Carol Hall's "Only a Broken Heart" are as moving as his seated soft-shoe version of "Very Soft Shoes" (Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer) is hilarious......................

Nadler is a true original. And this is a sweet, light and brightly inventive show.

E-mail Robert Hurwitt at